Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)


Chapter 2. PORT DESIRE

Darwin’s Rhea

What we had for dinner to day would sound very odd in England. Ostrich dumplings & Armadilloes; the former would never be recognized as a bird but rather as beef.


ANY GOOD DARWIN ACCOUNT should feature the story of the small South American ostrich known as Darwin’s rhea, because it so nicely sums up the spirit of nineteenth century adventure. It is, first of all, a story about the thrill of being the first to discover a new species. It is also a story about the thrill of finding that you are accidentally discovering a new species while eating it.

In December 1834, three years into its journey, the Beagle anchored in the expansive natural harbor at Port Desire on a dry, flat coastal stretch of Argentine Pa t a-gonia. After leaving Rio de Janeiro, the Beagle had never returned to Brazil and instead spent two years surveying back and forth, up and down the Patagonian coast, arriving now in what was becoming a familiar scene—a deep blue harbor surrounded by wind-tormented desert plains. The ship’s recently hired artist, a friend of Darwin’s named Conrad Martens, found himself with little to sketch as the Beagle lingered. “The country is bare and desolate in the extreme,” Martens wrote in a letter to his brother. Wood for fires was hard to come by, and worse still, the water was brackish and so full of bacteria that Martens felt the need to purify it “with certain proportions of brandy.” Putting down his sketchbook, Martens picked up his shotgun and strolled out most days to exercise the local wildlife—simultaneously killing time and animals. Part of the benefit of his activity was to provide some food for the rest of the crew. The Beagle diet generally consisted of anything caught or found that tasted better than salted beef and pork, and at Port Desire this alternative menu included gulls, shags (cormorant-like birds even less appetizing than gulls), sharks, mussels, limpets, and land crabs.

The other benefit was scientific. Martens could bring his animals back to Darwin for inspection, and if they piqued the naturalist’s interest, he would send them back to England for classification. It was on a run-of-the-mill January afternoon meal-seeking excursion that Martens unwittingly handed Darwin one of his greatest finds.

Locals had told Darwin several times of a smaller version of the South American ostrich, or rhea, which supposedly roamed the plains of southern Patagonia and which Europeans had never seen before. (The northern plains were full of regular ol’ “greater rheas.”) Darwin r e cognized that finding this “avestruz petise” would be a major feather in his species-hunter cap. He also knew that the French government had recently dispatched a man named Alcide d’Orbigny to collect animals in South America, and Darwin worried in letters home that this s i nister competitor would “get the cream of all the good things” before he did—most especially the small rhea.

Martens knew nothing of this Anglo-Gallic battle for ostrich-discovery supremacy. Upon seeing a small bird while pacing the plains, his first thought was that no one from the Beagle had successfully hunted an ostrich of any kind, and so, meaning to become the first, he tracked it, snuck up on it, and got his shot. The rhea fell and Martens grabbed it, slung it across his shoulder, and headed back to camp to hear his praises sung. Not only had he brought back the first ostrich, he had brought back an undeniably tasty dinner.

Darwin, like the other crew members, was pleased. He had sampled rhea before and compared the flavor and texture to beef, and after a cursory examination of Martens’ bird he absentmindedly concluded it was your typical large rhea, only a juvenile variety. It was “skinned and cooked before my memory returned,” he later wrote. When he realized his error he managed to gather “the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin,” and shipped these back to England, where naturalist John Gould confirmed that these bits and pieces constituted a new species and gave it the name Rhea darwinii. “M.A. d’Orbigny,” Darwin observed dryly when he got home, “made great exertions to procure this bird, but never had the good fortune to succeed.”

In this small matter, though, Darwin was wrong. D’Orbigny (who Darwin hailed in The Voyage of the Beagle as an “indefatigable” collector) had, in fact, not only apparently discovered the smaller rhea—he had already named it the Rhea pennata, which is the scientific name used today. But by virtue of Darwin’s greater status (or possibly just to avert another hundred years war), the bird is still commonly known as the Darwin’s rhea.


The Darwin’s rhea story was the first story that made me see how much humor, irony, and brilliant accident there was in The Voyage of the Beagle. Imagining Darwin’s “transport” as he rushed about gathering dismembered bird parts in order to keep them out of the cooking fire made me laugh the first time I read it, at a hostel dining room table in Chile, and again a few weeks after leaving Rio de Janeiro, as I rode on a bus toward Port Desire, looking out the window at the rheas that flocked alongside the highway. I’m not expert enough at birdwatching to instantly spot the difference between similar birds—for one thing, “smaller” is a pretty relative descriptor to go by unless you spend a lot more time with rheas than I have. So I craned my neck to follow the birds for as long as I could from the bus window, watching them whip past at 50 miles an hour, thinking, was that one shorter? Were its legs more feathered? What, exactly, do ornithologists mean by “mottled”?

I also tried to think, off the top of my head, of another species named after the Europeans who first ate them, which turned out to be a short list. I stopped looking out the window for a while and looked around at the interior of the bus. The rest of the passengers clearly didn’t share my enthusiasm for the small, dusty-brown bird’s history. Most were shrimpers. They were silent and burly and presumably interested in, well, shrimping. The commercial fishing season had just started, and fish and fishing had occupied the prime real estate above the fold of the Patagonian newspapers for the last week. The land being as desolate as it was, it seemed natural that most of Patagonia’s residents focused instead on what was in the water.

When we arrived in Port Desire, and the shrimpers had trundled off to the area around the wharves, I found that the town that inspired Martens to pack away his paint-brushes for a week was now even less picturesque. Despite its location at the edge of a major inlet, there was almost no public waterfront. All the land along the coast had been given over to fish processing plants, navy bases, and shipping containers. Massive freighters rusted into the water, roped together like yoked oxen in front of storage lots full of Maersk and Hamburg Sur containers.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish tried to settle in the area around Port Desire and, as with many of their settlement endeavors in southern Patagonia, failed for lack of water. When Darwin arrived the city was just a ruin on the edge of a big estuary, crumbling and unpopulated, although many of the buildings kept what the naturalist called their “good style.” “The fate of all the Spanish establishments on the coast of Patagonia, with the exception of the Rio Negro, has been miserable,” Darwin wrote.

Port Desire didn’t fare much better for another seventy years, and not until the beginning of the twentieth century did it become established as a fishing town and naval base. The town today has a population of 12,000 but retains a deserted, Old-West ghost town feel. Wandering down the main drag at noon, it seemed quite possible that I was the only tourist for miles around. Not only was it an out-of-the-way and, frankly, largely uninteresting place, but it was the tourist low season, when most of Patagonia sits back to take a nap and admire the tumbleweeds and rheas drifting across the plains. My hotel, one of a handful in town, was seemingly the social center of the city, full of visiting fishermen who took their breakfast around 5 A.M. and were asleep by the time I returned in the evening.

Posters around town advertised an excursion company called Darwin Expeditions, so with nothing else to do, I called to see if they could help me find a Darwin’s rhea. I hoped that an expert could not only help me positively identify the smaller rhea, but could put them in context, and tell me more about the birds of Port Desire. But in the low season, Darwin Expeditions only ran boat trips around the harbor. Pressed with my request, the guide, Ricardo Perez, offered a seabird-and-penguin watching cruise, but added that the minimum number of people to do a boat ride was four, and that no one had signed up yet, and that the bus I’d come in on—the one that had been full of non-tourist shrimpers—was the only bus of the day to arrive in town. I hesitated, then decided that even the small chance of a boat ride beat wandering around town studying fish processing plants for another day. Perez seemed to think it unlikely this deafening non-demand would change, but said he’d call my hotel later that evening.

When he did call, around 9 P.M., it was to tell me that four other tourists had come by. Perez sounded about as surprised as I was about this. We were on for penguins.

In the morning, the hotel called me a taxi, which dropped me off at a dock at the edge of town. I stood waiting to see what kind of fellow tourists had arrived and enabled me to go on this boat ride. People who spend a lot of time in obscure corners of the world may be able to anticipate what kind of travelers are around in remote places in the low season and have their own private transportation into town, and those readers may be nodding and starting to smile now at what seemed like the cosmos choosing to have a bit of fun with everyone. Well, I didn’t know what to expect. I tried to tick through the list in my mind: no one young, certainly, because they would have arrived on the bus. Europeans or Australians on a guided tour? Wealthy Argentines who had access to a private car and decided on a whim to visit Port Desire? I mean, who (other than Darwin-fan-writers) rents a car in Patagonia? And then comes to a place like this?

Across the highway, a white sedan pulled up and two upper-middle-aged couples got out. They looked like cruise ship passengers: oldish, whitish, dressed in obvious western-traveler duds. They crossed the road and introduced themselves in halting but competent Spanish. Picking up their accent, I asked where they were from, and they turned out (of course!) to be Mormon missionaries from California. They talked for a generous while about their travels and their missionary work, which they were on a break from, but their sons, who were now in Buenos Aires, were still working at it and evidently really enjoying it.

I started to think I was going to be in for a very strange boat ride when I told them what I was doing here.

Which, evidently, was their cue to ask.

“So,” said one of the two men, who I’ll call Jim. “What brings you to Port Desire?”

This is the thing about missionaries: I’m fairly suspicious about them. Not that I find Mormonism in any way exceptional or offensive, but I just don’t much like the idea of evangelical anything. So I worried about what they’d say, and then I thought about it and worried more about what I would say. Introducing the subject of Darwin into a crowd of missionaries seems like an activity fraught with conversational peril. Darwin means evolution, and evolution, in my experience, is not something that you can casually discuss with people who are zealous enough to be missionaries. So I picked my words carefully and said in the most inoffensive way I could think of that I was retracing Charles Darwin’s footsteps.

There was a longish pause. I shuffled my feet and triple-checked the buckles on my lifejacket, and then, to my surprise, they nodded politely and said what a wonderful thing it was that I was getting out in the world and that they hadn’t known that Darwin was so young on his trip. We all smiled weakly for a while, and then they changed the subject to birds, at which they were quite expert.

Perez, who had been off fiddling around with ropes and things, came back around this time and helped us up the plank and into the boat, which was some form of g l orified zodiac. Jim, standing in the bow of the boat with a camera, started to point out different varieties of birds to his wife with a really impressive, encyclopedic range. “There’s a red-legged cormorant!” he said. “You’ll never see one that close!” As everyone else noticed the red-legged cormorants nesting in the pink cliffs, he moved on to regular cormorants and night herons and white-legged somethings-or-others and lots of other birds I didn’t recognize. “Finally!” he exclaimed at one point, gesturing at his camera, “a picture of a white-legged-something-or-other!”

His enthusiasm was infectious. I forgot Darwin for a while and grabbed my camera. Penguins nested in crevices halfway down the pink cliffs, and Perez pulled the boat in for a closer look. The rock rose out of the water in an improbable jumble, like a pile of Jello cubes, to a height of about thirty feet. I couldn’t figure out how the penguins could have got where they were—fifteen feet above the water, fifteen feet down from the cliff edge. It was like someone had forgotten to remind them that they couldn’t fly.

We drifted by the cliffs and then motored over to an island in the middle of the estuary, where Perez estimated there were 25,000 penguins hanging out. Magellanic penguins on land are some of the world’s most ridiculous creatures; they waddle, they flap their wings futilely, they cock their heads and look at human intruders with expressions of such confusion and incomprehension that you can’t help but burst out laughing. (There’s a rumor that if you stand in front of a penguin’s path as it’s trying to exit the water you can seriously harm it, because it will just stand there, stumped, until you move out of its way, by which point it will be suffering from the cold.) Perez beached the boat and the passengers all wandered off in different directions in the pinguinera, poking around in the grass, stalking penguins with cameras, and sitting on the beach having tea while birds strutted around us.

When we got back into the boat, I resumed my Darwin focus with an examination of the area geology. Numerous small inlets and dry creeks snaked up from the estuary, lightning-bolt shaped cracks in the pink rock. Beyond the water’s edge it was fairly desolate, with acres and acres of wasteland dotted with small thorn bushes, yellow clumps of prickly grass, and a howling wind that whipped across the land and turned the water into froth.

As we motored back toward town, Perez started clandestinely pointing out Darwin sites to me, taking his opportunities while the others gazed the opposite direction at birds. Perez swung around to face the distant head of the inlet, where Darwin and others had camped while exploring a maze of pink-rock cliffs. Closer to town, in a patch of sapphire water in mid-estuary, he idled the motor and identified the spot where the Beagle had anchored. “The ruins of the fort that Darwin mentioned would have been right about there,” Perez said, pointing landward at a flat mound of rock rising behind rusted fishing boats. I watched a group of dockworkers tossing silvery fishing lines off the back of an industrial ferry. The estuary glittered around them under a glaring, cloudless sky. Perez paused for a moment. “Of course,” he said, “now it’s all gone.”

I was disappointed, and it wasn’t until quite later that I realized that I’d got it all wrong. I’d felt separate, even smug, about looking for Darwin sites on a boat full of missionaries, and disappointed when those Darwin sites turned out to be mostly gone, and I’d forgotten the point of my trip. Instead of celebrating my evolution-enlightened superiority, I should have talked to the missionaries about what we all—including my long-dead naturalist—had in common: a love of nature, exploration, and travel, and a desire for the thrills that all people find in chasing white-legged-something-or-others. That’s not just a way to bridge a gap between a 20-year-old skeptic and 60-year-old evangelical, it’s a way for everyone, religious or not, to better understand the real Darwin. Who, if he had been along with us on the boat ride, would have been down at the end of the boat with the missionaries, checking out the birds.